“I wrestled with Tannhäuser for a long time and finally I said I wouldn’t sing it. I couldn’t sing it because it denied everything that I believed in and everything on which I’ve founded my philosophy of life … I’m a committed Christian. Tannhäuser is, I think, an attempt to strike at the very root of the Christian faith.”
Jon Vickers was not particularly popular with many in the world of opera and while no one questioned his religious convictions, there were many who said that he cancelled those performances of Tannhauser because his voice simply was not up to the demands of the role. But Vickers had a huge, clear, ringing voice, a rock-solid vocal technique which easily managed other equally difficult challenges and a record of solid moral and religious convictions, having often refused to sing roles which he considered to be lacking in morality, or whose lack of morality did not carry a lesson. A genuine Heldentenor, Vickers despised Richard Wagner as a person but had mastered Wagnerian operas such as Die Walkerie and Tristan and Isolde.
He was not tall, but he had the physique of a lumberjack, a strong ego, and he could be arrogant and demanding, cruel and insensitive. Vickers refused to record recitals of arias outside the context of the opera itself, believing that to do so elevated the performer above the music. He was also fully aware of the contradiction between his professed humility – the belief that his voice was a gift from God and that musicians should merely serve the composer and God – and his own arrogance and the demands he made as a great operatic tenor.
Jonathan Stewart Vickers was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan Canada in 1926. Jon was the sixth of eight children. His father was a grammar school principal, lay preacher, and amateur musician. The boy sang locally in church choirs and musicals as a hobby but planned a career in retail business until he received a scholarship to study voice at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto where he also met his wife. In 1957 he was invited to sing at Covent Garden in London and soon had a worldwide career including performing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he sang for 20 seasons.
As a rising young singer, Vickers appeared in dozens of operas, from Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Aida to Pagliacci and even Carmen.
Modern opera held no fears for him; his Peter Grimes was hailed as a shattering, magnificent portrayal, although Benjamin Britten, the composer of Peter Grimes thought Vickers interpretation was so far from his original intent, including actually changing some of the text, that he not only walked out of the performance but refused to listen to Vickers’ recording.
With his ringing voice and physical presence, it was soon clear that Vickers belonged in the world of dramatic tenors and, as soon as his popularity reached the point that he could control his career, he concentrated on roles he felt met his moral standards. He sang the Wagnerian heldentenor roles but also Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Verdi’s Otello.
His “Pagliacci” was emotionally shattering.
He was known to walk out of rehearsals if he felt the rest of the cast was not prepared, but he demanded the same high standards of himself. He hated publicity but was quite capable of generating publicity by interrupting a performance to shout “Stop your damned coughing!” at the audience. Vickers was a singing actor of whose performances combined sensitivity, intelligence, brute force, and stubborn individuality to create an overwhelming impact. He retired from opera in 1988 and remained by the side of his wife, who died of cancer a few years later.
Jon Vickers retired from opera in 1988 to care for his wife, who was dying of cancer. They had been married for 38 years and had five children. After she died in 1991, he moved to Bermuda because of its tax policies.
He later remarried and died in 2015 at the age of 88 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.